Some films are all about their genre or a certain film-making technique or gimmick, rather than about telling a story in moving pictures and sound. The most obvious example is porn (or most of it, at least). The classic porno flick is a caricature of a movie, with a shred of story that is there to provide an excuse for the sex. Of course, since the sex is why people watch porn, why complain about a lack of story?
The same discussion can be had about horror movies. There are sub-genres of horror that are all about the blood and gore. The story-lines of these films exist to provide situations in which the slasher, monster, vampire, or what-have-you slices, dices, and otherwise creates a bloody mess out of its victims. Using the Horror on Screen’s classification system, these sub-genres fall under the heading of “gore and disturbing.” They include “torture”, “splatter”, “cannibal”, and “extreme”. Once again, if the gore is what you’re watching for, then why complain about the poor story? And for those who like both gore and sex in their movies, there’s horror porn.
However, there is also another approach. Coming from the opposite direction, some horror films and their creators put horror in the service of the story they are telling. Horrific and terrifying moments evolve naturally as the story unfolds — that is, if the plot involves characters, settings, and situations that get under the viewer’s skin in some way, whether through realism so authentic that it reminds him or her of his/her own life experiences or through the opposite end of the spectrum, surrealism so dream-like that it makes the viewer feel as if he or she is experiencing a nightmare from which there is no waking up.
In my opinion, “Contracted” (2013) is a film that falls into this latter category. In this movie, writer-director Eric England places horror in the service of a well-developed, classic three-act story. Samantha (Najarra Townsend), a beautiful, talented, but somewhat naive young woman is infected with a very unusual disease by having unprotected sex with a stranger. Once contracted, this infection progresses over three days (a clever use of a time lock here) and ultimately turns her into a zombie-like, murderous, non-human being.
The way in which this story unfolds is so horrific that it made me feel like I was going to vomit at times. This is not a criticism, but rather a commendation for England and his cast and crew — and especially Townsend, whose character is so central to this film that she in effect carries the whole enterprise on her very capable shoulders.
Here I must correct myself by expanding on my brief story summary. At the start of the movie, Sam (as she is called by everyone else) appears to be at the bitter end of her first lesbian relationship. She has recently moved out of her girlfriend Nikki’s (Katie Stegeman) L.A. apartment and into her mother’s (Caroline WIlliams) place, but is tenaciously trying to repair the relationship and move back in. When Nikki does not show up to join Sam at her friend Alice’s (Alice Macdonald) home, Sam gives in to Alice’s attempts to get her drunk.
Meanwhile, the male sharks are circling her. There’s Riley (Matt Mercer), who pursues Sam relentlessly despite (or maybe because of) repeated rejection. There’s Zain (Charley Koontz), her former drug dealer, who would like nothing better than to get her hooked again. And then, there’s B.J. (Simon Barrett).
While Riley and Zain are just garden-variety male predators, B.J. is truly evil. To accentuate his diabolical nature, DP Mike Testin never allows the viewer to get a clear look at him. Often he is shown from behind; when he is seen from the front, he is out of focus in the background of the shot. The film’s only jump scare is caused by B.J. and occurs just before he and Sam have their first conversation, during which his dialogue is cold, calculating, and measured. Unlike Sam, he is stone-cold sober.
Why is B.J. evil and not “just” a pickup artist? Besides being a sexual predator, he is a necrophiliac, as the movie’s cold opening discloses. He’s picked up some type of disease from the female corpses that he defiles at the local morgue. And when he has sex with the extremely drunk Sam in the back of his car outside the party, he passes it on to her. As if to underscore this point, the film’s title appears at the end of this scene, which is also the end of the first act.
Did I say that B.J. has sex with Sam? No, he does not. What starts out as sex turns into something else. He ignores Sam’s pleas that they stop what they are doing. In other words, he rapes Sam. In fact, given his disease-carrier status and the ultimate, gruesome effects of the transmitted infection on Sam, he also kills her.
B.J. rapes Sam to death.
At this point, you might think that this film has a feminist statement to make. Well, it does — and a strong one at that — but ultimately, it also has a much broader, even more damning commentary to make on all the characters (gay, straight, male, female) in the world that it presents. In fact, all have “contracted” the same disease, although Sam is the one who develops its full potential. That “disease” is narcissism.
Narcissism? Yes, but not the so-called “healthy” variety, which also goes by the more accurate name of self-esteem. In “Contracted”, the narcissism is of the pathological variety, the kind that causes people to view others as mere objects, to be manipulated when they are useful and discarded when they are not. The zombie that Sam becomes is the ultimate form of this object, the completely dehumanized human being.
As I have noted in a previous post, zombies are the ultimate cinematic form of the “Other,” the non-human, the “them” who are not like “us” (or, in the ultimate reduction to absurdity, like “me”). In “real life,” one stands a good chance of being “Othered” if he or she is classified into a minority group. While “Contracted” does a good job of showing how lesbians are Othered, it also demonstrates that narcissism leads to the ultimate “Othering”: a majority of one excludes the rest of humanity from membership in the human race in the pursuit of his or her own self-aggrandizement.
Not convinced? Let’s look at some of the characters other than Sam. Nikki is totally self-absorbed; she clearly has a disdain for Sam, but can’t cut her loose because of the ego strokes that result from having someone around who is infatuated with her. Alice just wants the obviously younger Sam for a trophy, a testament to her continued sexual attractiveness. For Riley, Sam is also a prize, to be claimed by winning the ultimate challenge, seducing a woman who has declared herself as a lesbian and professes no further interest in men. Although Sam has gone through drug rehab and is clean, Zain wants nothing more than to get her back as a regular customer by seducing her into getting hooked again. Sam’s mother locks herself in an almost-classic Oedipal struggle as she tries to force Sam to do things her way. Finally, B.J. is the ultimate in pathological narcissism. His actions ultimately turn Sam into the external manifestation of the devouring, insatiable predator that lives inside his head.
The real horror in this movie is the inherent, dehumanizing, basic selfishness of all human beings.
Beyond its story, characters, and themes, this movie has many other winning artistic characteristics, such as the opening sequence. It begins with the necrophilia sequence and then segues to the opening credits, where images of flowering plants (an allusion to Sam’s professional ambitions in horticulture) foreshadow the movie’s action through images that juxtapose growth with destruction.
Moreover, I am blown away by the fact that England produced such a high-quality movie on a low indie budget. For example, he shot the final, climactic scene guerrilla-style at an L.A. intersection because he did not have the funds to get a permit. Given that cast and crew had to nail the shot in very few takes, it is remarkable that it came off so well.
I have done such a “close reading” of this film because I am in the process of writing a screenplay whose horror, like that of “Contracted,” I hope to have flow from the story-line and characters. When I get my screenplay finished, I would like to produce it myself (yes, I am a masochist). Now, if I can only get my hands on a shooting copy of the England script so that I can see how he translated his story from the page to the screen . . . .